backpacking… upgraded

Archive for the ‘Nightlife’

Vinacarta: like a map but smarta

The night before I boarded a bus to Hanoi last week, I scoured the internet for a quality map of the city. None of the usual suspects (Google, Mapquest, et al) offered detailed enough information. That’s when I stumbled across Vinacarta.

Vinacarta offers a fantastic set of info-maps for major cities in SE Asia, and it’s extremely easy and intuitive to use. Whether you’re looking for shops, restaurants, parks, etc., or simply trying to get oriented, Vinacarta is the best site I’ve yet come across to help you. It’s basically a mashup of Google Maps and Citysearch.

Just zoom in on a part of a particular city, then select what interests you from the menu at left. Instantly every relevant business in the database is highlighted on the map, with the accompanying address, a description, pictures (if available), and links to reviews of the place. Instant gratification.

Of course Vinacarta has its limitations. Its information isn’t comprehensive; only fifteen of the largest cities in SE Asia are covered, and among those, it’s nearly impossible to account for every tiny side street and mom-and-pop shop. So Vinacarta doesn’t. Also, it’s missing the one function that makes Mapquest and Google Maps so handy: ‘Driving Directions’.

But these are minor quibbles, and ones that might be addressed in time. Given how useful (and unique at the moment) Vinacarta is, it’s a bit ridiculous to complain.

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Flamenco lives!

A week into our family Barcelona trip, Whitney and I broke off to have Friday evening to ourselves. With the afternoon winding down, we stuffed a hip-pack full of books and took the metro to the Ramblas. We wandered around for a while before finding a suitable café with sidewalk seating. For more than two hours we chatted idly and read our books at the table, enjoying the lazing sun, polishing off a plate of assorted cheeses and bread and a bottle of red table wine. Ah, the life of a Spaniard.

Departing the café shortly after eight p.m., we had yet to choose the night’s next stop, so we meandered down the Ramblas in the direction of a metro station. We remembered a nearby club, Jazz Sí, and found our way there. Throughout the week Jazz Sí features live music performances by ensembles of university-student players. We had come to the club earlier in the week and listened to a competent four-piece jazz band, which started out quite well and sounded even better after a bottle of Estrella or two. The club was intimate, comprising maybe thirty sardine-tight seats downstairs, a small balcony (in reality little more than a walkway), and a stage not much larger than a billiards table.

Tonight’s music offering was flamenco, and the show would start at 8:45. We were just in time, and luckily so; the place was packed. I approached the bar to get a couple glasses of wine, throwing an elbow or two for prime positioning, and we set off to find seats, drinks in hand. The entire downstairs had already filled; Whit and I eventually improvised some seats on the floor of the balcony, our legs dangling freely above the crowd. Mildly besotted already from the afternoon’s vino, I wrapped an arm around a balcony rail and held my wine glass in the other, and I became suddenly aware of the possibility of dropping my glass on an surprised onlooker. I visualized myself being ripped from the balcony by my spindly legs, then dragged outside and assaulted with Spanish fists and salty language. I tightened my grip on my glass just as lights went down.

The emcee came to the stage to introduce the musicians to the audience. While my Spanish is generally sufficient to order entrees and find the nearest fire station, I had trouble understanding much of his introduction; the gist of it was that the musicians were students who came from longstanding flamenco families and who understood the music’s rich tradition. From the moment the trio (a singer, a guitarist, and a percussionist) took the stage, one thing was obvious: these were just kids. They couldn’t have been more than sixty-years old, combined. I braced for what might lie ahead.

Rather than grinding my teeth for the duration of the show, I listened intently, my mouth agape in amazement. These kids could really play! A guitar player myself, I couldn’t believe the sounds this young guitarist was coaxing out of his instrument. He colored the songs with left-handed flourishes up the fretboard and propelled them forward with rapid finger-picking and strumming with his right. The singer yowled with such passion and skill that he seemed to inhabit the words and melodies even as he shared them with a rapt crowd. They played for less than a half-hour, then left the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After the intermission they confidently took the stage again, now accompanied by a female dancer. Draped a bright, flowing, floor-length dress, she moved deftly across the stage for the entire second half, locked in with the rising and falling of the music. It was almost too much to take in one sitting. The music itself was overwhelming; the combination of music and dance brought tears to my eyes. To see these big-city university students performing cherished folk music, and performing it authentically and with humility and faith in the centuries-old tradition, was a moving testament to the flamenco’s enduring power.

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Milonga: the late-night passion of Buenos Aires

Approaching midnight on our final day in Buenos Aires, Whitney and I put on our last remaining clean clothes, flagged down a taxi, and gave the driver an address on the other side of the city. “¿Van a Torquato Tasso?” he asked. “Sí,” I replied. This must be a popular spot, I thought. Or perhaps it was the only reasonable tourist destination this late on a Sunday night.

Two nights before we had been to a proper tango show a few blocks away at Bar Sur, with live music and professional dancers, handsomely attired and serious about their craft. Tonight we were headed to a milonga, one of BA’s most cherished traditions, where the people, rather than the professionals, come to tango.

We entered Torquato Tasso and skirted the edges of the dance floor, weaving haltingly between dancing duos, to reach the bar at the back of the room. There was no live band tonight, just four overhead speakers spilling out music and offering cues to the dancers below. The dance floor is about 40-feet wide by 25-feet long, and there are probably 100 feet gliding and spinning gracefully across it during a tango song. At the end of a set — about four songs in ten minutes — the dance partners break and return to tables scattered around the room.

During the break there is little verbal interaction between dancers. Instead the men silently look around the room, trying to catch a woman’s eyes. If they make eye contact, he invites her to dance with a tilt of his head and a subtle facial expression; this is called the cabezazo. If she returns the glance, she accepts his invitation. If she declines, he looks elsewhere. When the tango begins again, the floor quickly fills to capacity with newly-formed pairs of dancers of all ages and skill levels.

One of the interesting aspects of tango is how interpretive and communicative it is. If you watch ten different pairs of dancers, you’ll see ten different styles and steps. Some move brashly across the room, clinging loosely to one another and charging in bold steps through the crowd. Others lock in a tight embrace and revolve carefully around a small patch of floor. I also noticed several older men paired up with very young, inexperienced women. They would begin with a cordial introduction and some tentative steps; after a couple songs he would be deftly leading her through some very difficult-looking maneuvers.

It’s easy to see why tango is a national passion in Argentina. It’s a beautiful thing to watch: an intimate moment between complete strangers, designed and carried out by the slightest suggestions of their bodies, tender and forceful at the same time.

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